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Under the Influence of the Bishops

The Battle Over Family Planning in the Philippines

It is a measure that has been, in one form or another, on the legislative agenda since the 1980s, but has never gone further than committee level. The measure went farthest and was being deliberated on the floor of the House early this year, just before Congress went into recess in preparation for the May elections. House Bill 5043 had hurdled the committee deliberations and was in the period of interpellation (when a bill’s sponsor takes
questions from colleagues) but had been stalled for months by a small band of interrogators who, failing to shake the sponsors, resorted to questioning the quorum and demanding a roll call. At this point, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) even issued a call for members of Congress not to report for sessions when the “RH Bill” was tabled.

“It [the quorum issue] was a convenient tool” to delay the bill’s passage, sighs Ramon San Pascual, executive director of the Philippine Legislators’ Committee for Population and Development, founded in the 1980s to promote the study of population and development issues among members of both the House and Senate. Indeed, says Rep. Edcel Lagman, the bill’s principal author, the use of a quorum “was a lesson for us,” because, he says, if only all of the bill’s co-authors showed up at sessions, there would indeed have been a quorum.

But quorum or no quorum, it seems the RH Bill was doomed from the start. In hindsight, it appears that the leadership of the House, in the person of former Speaker Prospero Nograles, was ambivalent at best about supporting the passage of the bill. Part of that ambivalence must be credited to Nograles’s deference to the former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who had already declared it state policy to promote only “natural” family planning, a position many believed was a concession to the bishops, on whose political support she relied.

In a conversation with Speaker Nograles, recalls Lagman, “he told me that he was for the bill, but he admitted
that if he got a call from Malacanang [the president’s official residence] to slow down, he would not be able to resist.”

Before then, irked by the opponents’ delaying tactics, Lagman managed to wrangle from Nograles an agreement to hold a panel debate, forming two panels of five members each to discuss possible amendments to the bill. This would have negated the need for any more fruitless and contentious floor debates. “That never happened,” he says ruefully.

San Pascual is more blunt. The Speaker, he says, “made it appear as if he were on our side, when all the while he was really on the other side.” (During his unsuccessful run this year for mayor of his native Davao City, Nograles declared his intention to withdraw the city’s Women’s Health Code and received an award from Human Life International, one of the more strident opponents of sexual and reproductive rights worldwide.)

In October last year, just as the panel debate was being readied, sources from within Malacanang confirmed that two bishops, representing the bishops Commission on Family Life, called on the president. Shortly after, an assistant of the president called up Speaker Nograles asking him to “slow down” on the RH Bill. “After that, they were just dribbling the ball and going through the motions,” says Rep. Janette Garin of the province of Iloilo, a bill co-sponsor who was outspoken in her support for it.

The “Golden Age” of reproductive health policy in the Philippines, says Dr. Junice Demeterio Melgar, executive
director of women’s ngo Likhaan, was during a five-year period, from 1995 to 2000, that straddled the administrations of former Presidents Fidel V. Ramos and Joseph Estrada.

Ramos, a Protestant, had appointed as Health Secretary Dr. Juan Flavier, who brought a folksy winning charm to
his advocacy for family planning and reproductive health. During the midterm elections of 1995, Flavier ran for
the Senate and his deputy Dr. Carmencita “Chit” Reodica eventually took over the doh. It was Dr. Reodica, head of the Philippine delegation to the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, who crafted the policy grounding the department’s programs on “10 elements” of reproductive health, including free and informed choice in family planning, information and education for adolescents and a program on violence against women.

After Estrada’s electoral victory in 1998, Dr. Alberto “Cuasi” Romualdez, a public health expert who had gained
a reputation in international health circles, was appointed health secretary. And while Estrada joked about “not
being around if my mother had practiced family planning,” he largely left Romualdez alone to pursue his
programs. But Estrada’s term was cut short by a show of “People Power” in 2001, detained under house arrest on
charges of plunder.

When Estrada’s Vice-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo took office, Melgar notes, there was a “swift reversal” of policies governing family planning. The first warning, she recalls, was the “surreptitious” de-listing of Postinor, a drug brand approved for use as emergency contraception by Romualdez’s DOH. It was to be used by the women’s units in government hospitals for survivors of domestic violence and rape.

It was around this time that women’s groups held a dialogue with President Arroyo, recalls Melgar. At this meeting, the president admitted that she had relied on the birth control pill to space the births of her three children. “But I know better now,” she was quoted by the media, and in what it is hoped was an attempt at humor, blamed the pill for her notoriously short temper.

In the nine years of Arroyo’s term (she ran and won in 2004 in what has been revealed as a fraudulent election), she has steadily eroded the gains made in previous years. Declaring her belief in “devolution,” the president ordered that responsibility for the delivery of health services, including family planning, be given to local government units, with no national funds allotted for the purchase of family planning commodities. (But she allowed an allotment of ₱50 million [about $1 million] to the conservative Catholic group Couples for Christ, for the promotion of natural family planning.)

In a recent study, “Facts on Barriers to Contraceptive Use in the Philippines,” Likhaan and the Guttmacher Institute traced the “leveling off of modern contraceptive use” among Filipino women
mainly to lack of access, especially of family planning supplies. Local governments, said the authors, “do not receive sufficient funds under the revenue-sharing scheme to fully meet” their responsibility. Increasingly, women rely on private drug stores for their family planning needs, as a result of which women in the poorest sector are having on average two more children than they wanted. The study says that if only the “unmet need” for family planning was addressed, there would be 1.6 million fewer pregnancies each year, and unintended births would
be reduced by 800,000, abortions would decline by 500,000 and miscarriages would decline by 200,000.

“Bruising” is a term that supporters and authors of the RH Bill use to describe the fight to get it passed. Previous efforts had usually ended up mired in endless committee hearings, such as when one bill was referred to the budget committee and died without seeing daylight. But champions persisted in pursuing the bill,
noting that instead of being at the mercy of the executive’s personal and political stance, the population program needed to be “protected” by legislation.

The authorship by Congressman Lagman of a version of the RH Bill was both unexpected and heartening, says Melgar, whose group is a member of the Reproductive Health Action Network (rhan), which lobbied vigorously for
the measure.

Lagman has been a legislator since the 1980s, a lawyer whose two brothers have died as a result of leftist involvement. He was better known for advocating such “reckless” causes as debt moratorium, abolition of the death penalty and criminalization of forced disappearances. At the same time, Lagman proved himself a reliable ally of President Arroyo and the ruling party. At the time he filed the bill, he was chair of the committee on appropriations, using this post to win the support of many grateful congressmen.

In terms of number of sponsors alone, the RH Bill had good chances of passage, with 132 legislators (out of more than 200) signing on. Last year, Lagman also informed the president that he was giving up his chairmanship of appropriations to devote his full attention to the RH Bill. “She said, ‘Edcel go ahead,’” the congressman recalls, and he left believing he had at least Arroyo’s implicit support.

Both sides of the debate marshaled their supporters to attend the public hearings on the RH Bill: nuns, priests and
seminarians (in clerical garb) faced off against community women. Business groups, believing in the need for a rational population program, took out full-page advertisements in newspapers supporting the measure. Banners were hung in front of churches denouncing the “abortion bill.” Women’s groups held a march of pregnant women to focus attention on maternal health. And in the meantime, bishops summoned congressmen and congresswomen to berate them for their support of the bill.

Astonishingly, despite a few withdrawals, the sponsors held fast. But Lagman could do nothing about the lack of a quorum; by late 2009 legislators preferred spending more time in their districts, preparing for the next year’s campaign.

“Even if we failed (to pass the bill), we were able to generate public acceptance of reproductive health and rights
issues, and the links between pregnancy, maternal health and women’s rights,” reflects Melgar. But the battle for the bill just proved, she adds, “how powerful the executive can be.”

Public support not just for the RH Bill but for family planning itself has long been demonstrated by public opinion
surveys. The latest poll, conducted by the firm Pulse Asia last February at the height of the campaign season, revealed that 64 percent of Filipinos would vote for candidates who publicly promote modern methods of family planning. The same survey found that 75 percent think it is “very important or important for a candidate to include family planning in his/her program of action,” while 87 percent said that it is important for the government to allocate a budget for family planning. And in Catholic Philippines, 51 percent said they do not believe that
using modern methods of family planning is a sin.

The new president, known popularly as “Noynoy,” has made known his support for an RH measure, although
he was accused of “flip-flopping” on the issue when he had to clarify a previous statement and note that he wasn’t an author of the Senate version of the RH Bill. The bishops had publicly declared their disapproval of Noynoy over his stance on reproductive health (he said he believed in giving and respecting couples’ choices). Towards the end of the campaign period, the bishops even held an elaborate “laying of hands” ceremony on two of his opponents who promised not to sign an RH Bill during their term. They were Senator Manuel Villar (who finished third after Aquino and Estrada) and city councilor JC de los Reyes (who finished last).

Lagman, who is vying for speaker and, should he lose, would end up as minority leader, still an influential position, filed a new bill as soon as the new Congress convened. He is also optimistic of its chances of passage, citing that most coauthors won their races handily and that known supporters would also be returning to the House. But Arroyo surprised everyone early this year when she announced that she would be running for Congress and is now a representative of her native province of Pampanga. It’s anybody’s guess what she would do, given her residual influence, for or against the passage of a reproductive health measure. Also, most observers concede
that Villar, who is returning to the Senate, has the numbers to re-take his post as Senate president.

So perhaps Lagman and his supporters should take to heart the admonition that when it comes to the RH Bill, they should “hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.”


Rina Jiminez-David is a journalist and opinion columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. Her book, “Women at Large,” was a finalist for the National Book Awards in 1994. She has been recognized for her reporting on population, development and the Catholic faith.